Top positive review
136 people found this helpful
One of the ten best books on American life
on March 30, 2004
I found this book intriguing, because the authors understand why I like my neighborhood. Even better, they understand why I hate so many new housing projects. This is an important book, as vital as Jane Jacobs' work, and it has some uncomfortable truths to share. The US has become a Suburban Nation; a nation of badly-designed suburbs. The newest, more expensive ones are some of the worst.
My neighborhood has houses that are smallish, but sidewalks are everywhere. There are stores within reasonable walking distance, and not too many cul-de-sacs. Three parks are less than a mile away. That means I can walk more than one route to get places. More importantly, others walk the neighborhood too, so I actually meet my neighbors. A neighborhood built almost 50 years ago, the trees are mature (a rarity in Silicon Valley burbs) and provide shade, coolness, and beauty. 8000 square foot lots are neither so small that the houses are crushed together nor so large that walking seems to get you nowhere because it takes too long to pass each property.
Contrast this with the new developments going in: miniscule yards (and therefore little greenery), matchstick trees that don't receive any sun, overly wide arterials that offer only one way into or out of the development. Walls around the complex not only keep outsiders out, they prevent insiders from going out, too, unless they get in the car and crowd onto the only access road. Once in one's car, there is no opportunity to talk with neighbors on the inside, either.
Before reading Suburban Nation, I still had the same sense of what made a neighborhood compelling and we bought our home accordingly, preferring the old small house over the big new ones despite my need for closet space. Authors Duany, Plater-Zybeck, and Speck articulate these principals clearly and enjoyably. With many photographs illustrating both good and bad examples of city planning, Suburban Nation shows the consequences of bad assumptions as well as bad results. The authors like Winter Park, FL, because its downtown is walkable and residents, most of them retired and many who have given up driving, can easily participate in community life. They hate most of the new burbs being built because there is no there there, there's just a road from here to somewhere else with no central gathering point.
Most of the failure of the modern suburb is due to the automobile. Wider roads make a community less cohesive, because a wide road encourages speeding, while a narrow one encourages drivers to slow down, regardless of the posted speed limit. New communities have ridiculously wide roads, which not only lead to unsafe traffic but also discourages pedestrians. Cul-de-sacs, corners, and curves are overly wide as well, to accomodate uneeded 40 foot fire trucks; completely unneeded in a suburb where no building is over two stories but purchased by town councils wanting their fire chiefs to be happy. The net result is a 120 foot walk to cross a street instead of 40 feet because the corners are shaved to allow the stupid fire truck access, the fire truck the suburb DOES NOT NEED because a smaller truck would do just as good a job.
People claim to want to live in the suburbs for a smaller community, but the way they are built frustrates any chance of finding it. Planners consider schools to be traffic nuisances and build them away from central locations, yet larger schools are what leads to disconnection. Putting them on the boundaries instead of the center of town destroys a chance of meeting other children from the neighborhood, and further increases car usage. The authors ask why a school is considered a traffic nuisance rather than making them smaller to be community assets?
Duany and Plater-Zybeck have designed some marvelous new communities, and hope this well-written and ground-breaking book will publicize why they succeed. The first step is repealing the planning rules that prevent all these elements of vital community. Read Suburban Nation and find out how community building begins with good design.